Developing themes in thesis work

Here’s a draft of a theme that has been developing as I work through my final project for my MS in the Environmental Humanities program at the University of Utah.

At the edge of the firs he became a mirror through inheritance. He stands on the edge of the Red Rock Lakes now just as he stood 200 million years ago when the limestone solidified and began rising out of the valley behind him. He waited there in darkness, not unworried, but staring intently at the possibility that the sun will never rise again.

Finally, the cormorants, gulls, and ibis pierced the darkness and found pressed between darkness and darkness, the greens and blues of the valley, killdeer nesting in there on the sun. Killdeer woke and dragged the sun out between bullrushes until it fell off the shore into the water where it perched on the edge of the lake burning the smoke off the water until there was sky enough to navigate. The red found the peaks at the end of the valley while constant witness preened in ferrous mud. Her primordial call fell on allosaurus ears, alligator ears, short-faced bear ears, north american cheetah ears, red-tailed hawk ears, and my ears. A black crowned night heron spread its wings, flapped heavily and peering up into new space, pushed off the small island, rose between bunches of willows and closed the distance between the black virgas and the edge of bald mountain. Constant witness’s yellow, diamond eye saw this where she lay in the grass waiting for her mother to return.

Constant witness stood at the entrance to the bear’s den, waiting for her to wake. She stood there throughout the summer, waiting for her to return. She saw descendants of descendants return larger than they left. She drooped heavily in the snow, passing and receiving information through fungus, roots, and darkness below. Over the Gros Ventres, across the Snake River, and into the Centennial Valley, constant witness walked for thousands of years. A highway sprung up from the meadow and he was lost, but he called the highway so. A fence sprung up

from the hillside and he was lost, but he called the fence so. A thumping, whooshing sound emanated from the ground where once there was none and he was lost, but he called that sound so. A light bore down on him where he once slept and he was lost but he called that light so.

Ash coated the paintbrush, goldenrod, and asters and constant witness found no color or scent to guide her. She zigzagged above gray earth, between gray trees, under a gray sky. Skunk cabbage was one of the first to place green against the gray again, and constant witness was there to see it. Then squirrel tail grasses emerged, and aspens began to replace the lodgepole.

Adding Loadlifters to HMG Packs


After much shoulder pain, I finally let go of my Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter 4400 and replaced it with a Seek Outside Divide 4500. The Divide is infinitely more comfortable than the Porter and weighs about 6oz more. This extra weight is absolutely worth it for those larger loads. I have used this pack on a 50+ mile Canyonlands trip, a Dirty Devil trip, and a few others. It may be the perfect pack for packrafting with one of Alpacka’s classic series boats or their whitewater boats. It carries these heavy loads comfortably. That said, I found the Divide to be overkill for regular backpacking trips. I also missed the compactness of the HMG packs. So I began scheming. 

There is much discussion in forums about how you have to size up with HMG packs to make them comfortable. With my original pack I followed these directions and found mixed results. The shoulder straps attach to the pack right at the top of one’s shoulders. This seems to negate the need for loadlifters. If the shoulder straps were to wrap around the shoulders, loadlifters would be needed to keep the pack from pulling backwards too much. The problem, however, is that the straps on the “correctly” sized HMG pack attach too close together. With even small loads they rest on my trapezius which is incredibly uncomfortable. I endured this pain for about four years before finally switching to the Divide. 

Then, this spring I began planning a trip which would tie into my master’s thesis. I would follow an individual deer from the Kaibab Plateau up the entire Grand Staircase, over the Paunsaugunt, and end on the Markagunt. Loads would be small and light, so I began looking for a pack which would save me some weight. I picked up a medium HMG Southwest 3400 sort of on a whim. This will be an experiment, I thought. The pack was about 32oz. It would be 20oz lighter than my Divide, if it worked. My torso measures 19.5” from the iliac crest to C7, so the medium would supposedly be too small for me with their torso recommendation of 17” to 19”.

With a couple of tri-glides, a couple of ladder-locks, and a couple of pieces of 3/4” webbing with Seek Outside’s gatekeeper buckles on them, I rigged some loadlifters to the pack’s y-yoke strap. It felt fine walking around the living room, but only after 50 miles or more would I know if my idea was any good. I’ve now walked about 100 miles with this pack, and it’s great. It weighs 33.4oz with the loadlifters and I have experienced zero shoulder pain. 

If you like the features and compactness of the HMG packs but hate the shoulder pain, consider SIZING DOWN and adding loadlifters. If there is any interest, I can explain how I did this. It’s likely, however, that someone else will find an even better way of doing this. 

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter 4400 Backpack


The first pack I can remember owning was a green JanSport. When I was about 21 I replaced it with a blue 115 liter Lowe Alpine. I used the Lowe for a while, eventually replacing it with a Dana Designs Astralplane (also in the 115 liter range, and weighing a now unfathomable 7.5lbs), and then with a Black Diamond Infinity 60, and then with a Boreas Buttermilks 55. In retrospect the BD and the Boreas weren’t bad packs but the swiveling hip belt on the BD squeaked and the Boreas hip belt nearly tore off one time when I carelessly stepped on it while hoisting the load onto my back. Oops. 

Around 2013 I started to feel like I needed a packrafting-specific pack as I had started to spend more time on the water, but I think much of this feeling stemmed from binge-watching YouTube videos of Forest McCarthy tromping around the Southwest with his HMG. He just looked so cool! My buddy picked up a Porter 4400 early in 2014 and I got mine in September of that year. I ditched all my other packs thinking I found the one pack to rule them all. Since then at least four other friends have purchased the exact same pack. On many trips we have looked like a team of some sort; not unlike the Ghostbusters or one of Jean Luc Picard’s away teams. Nearly four years later I think I have enough experience using it to write an informed review. 

My Personal Use

I have used the Porter 4400 for packrafting on the Dirty Devil, Escalante, Green, San Juan, San Rafael and many other rivers. My trips have included heavy bushwhacking and occasionally butt-scraping and pack-lowering. My pack is now pink as a result of these desert adventures. 

I have also used this pack for a full season as a Wilderness Ranger in the High Uintas Wilderness. As a ranger I carried eight days of food, a four foot crosscut saw, a SPOT, a satellite phone, a 24” saw, a full-sized shovel, and some little pruning shears (along with all the other typical backpacking gear). The Porter’s straps in all their versatility enveloped this gear with ease. 

Travel has become my favorite use for this pack as I have taken it on planes, buses and trains domestically and abroad. When in urban situations I feel like the hip and stylish people of the city approve of the white color and the clean aesthetics, but I could be projecting. 

Despite its shortcomings (and there are a few) I have, for one reason or another, overlooked them for over three years. It is decent for packrafting, outstanding for travel and less suited for long-distance backpacking where comfort is paramount. 



My friends’ packs average around 44oz with the addition of the stuff pocket on the outside. I think this is heavier than advertised, probably because there are little pieces of the desert clinging to it. This is a little lighter than a ULA Catalyst (48oz) and a little lighter than a Seek Outside Divide (52.2oz), both of which make good all-around packs. I think this weight is just fine considering that I have fit inside it eight days of food when working as a Wilderness Ranger. Five days of food and packrafting gear also fits just fine. I think you could probably fit seven days of food as well as packrafting gear if you put a few things on the outside. 

My hunch is that this weight to volume ratio is the main reason people buy this pack. It fits almost as much stuff in (and on) it as my old Dana did but at almost five pounds lighter. The pack’s strap system allows the user to strap stuff to the outside allowing the pack itself to be smaller than otherwise necessary to encapsulate things like helmets and PFDs. This saves a lot of weight. 



The first 50 miles destroyed my hips. The hip belt is not soft, and the texture of the fabric rubbed my skin totally raw. But apparently 50 miles is all it took to break it in, and after that it felt just fine. 

As you may have noticed, this pack doesn't come with load-lifters. HMG argues that the design of the pack negates the use of load-lifters. What this means is that, when wearing the correct size, the shoulder straps are supposed to attach to the pack near the top of one’s shoulders rather than wrap around the shoulders as they would on a pack with load-lifters. This does allow the straps to keep the load from pulling you back too much, and it does allow the weight to transfer to the hips for the most part. However, the space between straps gets narrower as it approaches the pack body and it ends up pinching my neck. The gap between the straps may need to be wider where it attaches, or in other words, my neck needs more room between them. Alternately it needs to have load-lifters. Let me specify that if this pack did have load-lifters then I would be able to wear a medium torso and in that case there would be shoulder wrap. This would be preferable, and would come at a very small weight penalty. However, the addition of loadlifters would probably lengthen the overall torso length beyond my beloved 22” for carry-on compartments. Still, I think it would be worth it. 

One result of this design is that most of us end up leaning forward a little bit so that the pack doesn’t pull us backwards. Packs with effective load lifters allow us to walk more upright. This may matter for some more than others. Another result of this design is that, after almost four years of use I have decided I don’t want my neck/shoulder area to hurt anymore and I have replaced this pack with something more comfortable. But I haven’t sold this pack yet because it still has one use that it isn’t necessarily designed for: travel.



The Porter Pack is a strap-centric rather than pocket-centric pack. That’s the main thing you need to know. If you like the HMG packs but want pockets, you may want to look at the Southwest. The straps are great for attaching paddles, helmets and PFDs to the outside of the pack, but after much use, I wish it had some pockets too. Sometimes you want to shove a rain jacket in a side pocket rather than putting it under a strap and cranking it down in hopes that it won’t fall out. The hip belt pockets were previously too small and I have always disliked them, but fortunately HMG has fixed this. During the writing of this review I have asked my friends what they like about the Porter 4400 and all have said in one way or another that they like the versatility of the straps. 

The other great feature of the Porter 4400 everyone can agree on is its waterproofness. The pack is pretty much waterproof except for the seams on the bottom of the pack, so after a good dunk in a glacial river, only about 1/4 cup of water gets into the pack. Honestly that’s good enough for me. However, the tape that is used to seal the inside of the pack often peals off near the place where the shoulder straps attach to the pack. This probably happens as weight shifts back and forth all day long while you are walking. You can replace the tape, but I’m left wondering if there’s a better solution for sealing these packs. 

The stock material is a 150D polyester  laminated to Dyneema Composite Fabric. This hybrid material is pretty good. On the plus side it doesn’t absorb much water and its stiffness allows for the pack to maintain a cylindrical shape no matter what you stuff in there. It is aesthetically appealing not to have a super lumpy pack. On the other hand it is about the same durability as some other fabrics that may be less expensive such as the Dyneema grid used by ULA or the XPAC VX21 used by Seek Outside. 

While the material on my pack has become fuzzy I still have not gotten any holes. One of my friends, however, has gotten holes in the bottom of his pack from dragging it repeatedly over slickrock. So, while I was going to put durability in the Pros column, he would have put durability in the Cons column. This leads me to believe that their stock material has average durability.


Best Uses

I bought this pack for packrafting but now I only use it for travel. My size large is exactly 22” tall when rolled down to the top of the shoulder straps. This allows it to fit in the carry-on compartments of most airlines. I have taken this pack to Iceland and Costa Rica and on a few domestic trips and it was great for both backpacking and day hiking while traveling. The straps allow it to compress down to the size of a daypack so you can walk around town without it looking too silly.

I will no longer be using this pack for packrafting because those heavy loads (42-47lbs) accentuate the pressure on my neck/shoulder area. I have found that a pack with a better suspension system such as the Seek Outside Divide 4500 is worth the small weight penalty. If HMG fixed this issue no one would be able to compete because the performance of the product would match their unrivaled marketing. 

I am no longer a Wilderness Ranger, but if I was I would choose a pack with a superior suspension for this use as well. For general backpacking there are many options out there that are more comfortable, lighter, and cheaper. The ULA Circuit, SWD Long Haul 50, Hanchor Marl, and Katabatic Gear Onni 65 all sport loadlifters and come in below the weight of the Porter 4400. 

So what is the best use for the Porter 4400? I think it is best for short trips where you have to carry a lot of bulky things and comfort is not a primary concern. 



I recommend this pack for travel or short packrafting trips until they fix the shoulder strap issue. It is simply too uncomfortable for me. I have tried to mitigate the issue by rigging a load-lifter system that attaches to the Y-yoke strap, and this has definitely helped but I don’t feel like people should have to do something like this just to make a pack comfortable. Moreover, it has not totally solved the problem because the straps still don’t allow enough room for my neck. 

I am aware that the reader might be wondering how I could go so long using a pack that I clearly don’t love. I don’t have a good answer to that. Maybe I’m attached to it because I’ve taken it so many places. Maybe I love the way it turned pink from the desert. Maybe I didn’t want to believe that my investment of $340 (in 2014) was misplaced. Maybe I didn’t know what other packs to try. 

Let me also note that while other users agree that the shoulder straps aren't particularly comfortable, they don't seem to be as bothered by it as me.



Aesthetically appealing color and shape. I love the white and how it takes on the color of whatever environment you drag your pack through. 

Doesn’t absorb (much) water. 

Great for travel. Fits in carry-on.


Great weight to volume ratio.

Very versatile strap system.



Hip belt had 50 mile break-in period for me.

No load-lifters.

Shoulder straps attach too close together and hurt neck/shoulder area.

Seam tape peals off pretty quickly. 

Poor durability.

Expensive at $380. Especially considering most folks buy the $45 stuff pocket which makes it $425. 

The Word


The Wolf and the Christ

In the uncaring wilderness

The river between them

And their quotient my sorrow


And the Sea and the Sun

Took up their sides

The horizon between them

And their quotient my sorrow


    All things that divided

    One another into sorrow

    Held each other's gaze

    As the sun finished its arc


Each one said "I was here first

And I will last longer"

But I stepped out of the trees

And spoke loudly their names


I said “Wolf!"

And then paused

And turned

And to the other I said “Wolf!”

And to the sky, “Wolf!”

And the sea, “Wolf!”


The red sun rose again above them

And the quotient of the sun

Over the land

Over the sea

Over me

Was the Word

Driving Through the Summer Storm

Near the Drum Mountains in central-western Utah the virga approached us, and we sped towards it in my 1993 Nissan truck. Dark blue and humanlike it swept the plane. It touched down somewhere, its feet the fleeting monsoon, welcomed by reaching greasewood and shivering russian thistle. Lightning cut across the dark form and we entered the deluge. Flash and boom inside of it, and flash and boom again. The rain transitioned from a heavy downpour to individual drops and the drops lessened and we looked back and the great dark form was now behind us; we had passed through its body. Lightning hit the sagebrush and greasewood plane where we had just been. The smell of sagebrush and dirt came in when I cracked my window. The form leaned heavily to one side and its shoulders led its apparition-like legs and dragged them across the desert. A rainbow began above and gained intensity, existing simultaneously with the other wrathful deity. God of the columnar storm in retreat, god of forgiveness above it, god of grace beyond that in the everlasting blue, while the Drum Mountains looked on, dark and stoic, booming dully. All gods shifting, circling one another.